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The Russian avant-garde produced some of the most recognisable and radical images of the 20thcentury through their quest for new visual realities. The avant-garde flourished from around 1890 – 1930, and one of the movements at the centre of this avant-garde was Suprematism. The movement is inextricably linked with its founder, Kazimir Malevich (1979-1935), whose eminently simple, flat geometric works fill the modern wings of museums around the world. 

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In terms of the suprematist art definition, Malevich has helpfully commented: ‘By "Suprematism" I mean the supremacy of pure feeling in creative art. To the Suprematist the visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless; the significant thing is feeling.’ Kazimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World: The Manifesto of Suprematism.

 

Kazimir Malevich, Self-portrait, 1933.

 

Origin of the movement:

As a term, Suprematism is understood as an abstract form of art which is based on "the supremacy of pure artistic feeling" as opposed to aiming at any level verisimilitude or visual realism. It was at the time a highly original and ambitious visual vocabulary. 

The above quote comes from Malevich’s 1927 manifesto of the movement, The Non-Objective World. The book has since become one of the most important written accompaniments to abstract art and its possibilities. In one of the most significant passages, he describes that ‘[I]n the year 1913, trying desperately to free art from the dead weight of the real world, I took refuge in the form of the square.’ 

He dubbed this original form of the movement the ‘suprematist square’. From this formal basis, Malevich then went on to develop a variety of adjacent forms which would become the visual structure of his works. The paintings were stripped of any conventional pictorial depth or perspective which meant they consisted of a series of clearly outlined forms and colours, almost revelling in their flatness. The colour and more dynamic shapes in his paintings were usually in the centre of the compositions, and the negative spaces towards the edges were normally filled with a neutral or white ground, which managed to lend the paintings a novel sense of space and hint of depth. Although formless, the backgrounds added an almost cosmic overtone to the work because it is as if the works are floating in space. 

 

Kazimir Malevich, Dynamic Suprematism, 1915-16.

 

Malevich took much inspiration from concurrent European and Russian avant-garde artists and poets that were also investigating the possibilities of abstract forms and moving beyond the current structuring elements of language and reason. Malevich purported that the semiotic connections between signifiers and what they signified was arbitrary: words that described certain objects were not inherently connected. Malevich was therefore abandoning all references to anything that currently existed in the visual world and creating a totally abstract art. These radical experiments that typify the resulting paintings has taken on a mystic bent, evident from the almost religious overtones apparent in Black Square(1915): the defining image of the movement. Although praised at the time, the work also drew criticism. The contemporaneous artist and critic Alexandre Benois described the work as a ‘[S]ermon of nothingness and destruction.

 

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915.

 

Suprematist art therefore abandoned realism, which Malevich belived was a diversion from the often-sublime experience that certain art could offer. In terms of where the movement fits in among other avant-garde movements, Suprematism can be seen as drawing heavily on both Futurism's obsession with depicting the movement of forms, and Cubism's visual attempts of reducing forms and multiple perspectives. Malevich labelled the square, ‘the face of a new art’, and it came to represent the mystical origin point of his movement. 

December 1915 was historically significant for the formation of Suprematism as it was when its inaugural exhibition took place in St Petersburg. The exhibition was called ‘O.10’ and was made up of 35 abstract works by Malevich himself, which included Black Square. 

 

Installation image of the 0.10 exhibition of Suprematist art.

 

Explanation of the movement’s concepts:  

As well as being an artist, Malevich was also a writer, and was dedicated to verbally elaborating and promoting his theories of vision and ideas on art. In 1915, he wrote and published a manifesto which aimed to explain his first exhibition of suprematist works. The manifesto was called ‘From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism in Art’. 

In the manifesto, Malevich laid out his journey from adjacent art forms to his claim that he had gone beyond the boundaries of reality into a new kind of artistic awareness. He explained that he had crucially limited his formal motifs to just the circle, the square and the rectangle to enter this pure world of forms. Malevich has often commented on these shapes and occasionally it appears there is a transcendent weight to his choice of these forms, and a spiritual underpinning in how he employs them. About the circle, for example, he claimed that ‘[I] have destroyed the ring of the horizon and escaped from the circle of things’. The more accepted critical stance is that Malevich was opposed to any form symbolism or interpretation of his work which understood his shapes to be representative of existing objects. Malevich saw the shapes as simply forms, and elements of a wider whole. In his own words, these shapes were ‘the zero of form’. 

Malevich believed that the Suprematism movement had three distinct phases which would unfold over time. These were: black, coloured and white. The black phase supposedly signified the origin of Suprematism, and its 'zero degree' of painting. Black Squareis part of this stage. The second ‘coloured’ stage, which is also known as ‘Dynamic Suprematism’ progressed to include the use of colour and shape to create the sensation of movement in space. 

By this stage, other artists were becoming involved in the Suprematist project, including El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko and Ilya Chasnik. In particular, El Lissitzky was heavily influenced by Malevich’s ideas and went on to develop his own version of Suprematism called 'Proun'. 

The third, white stage of Suprematism was its logical conclusion and zenith. Works made during this phase were shown at an exhibition called the Tenth State Exhibition: Non-objective Creation and Suprematismwhich took place in 1919. Malevich’s hugely famous work, White on White(1918) was exhibited for the first time at this exhibition. The work advanced many of the ideas present in the first two stages of Suprematism, although it managed to go much further by almost totally dispensing with form and showing only ‘the idea’. 

 

Kazimir Malevich, White on White, 1918.

 

Key works:

Some of the most famous suprematist art works have become internationally renowned. Among these are the already discussed Black Squareand White on Whiteby Malevich. One example from the second phase of Suprematism, the ‘coloured’ phase is pictured below. The work is called Suprematist Painting, Eight Red Rectanglesand dates from 1915 and is now in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. 

The second phase was arguably the most dynamic, if conventionally abstract series of works made by Malevich. This work and others like it are often understood in reference to Malevich’s interest in aerial photography, and so although the rectangles are essentially floating in space, they could also be a visual description of objects from above. 

 

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting, Eight Red Rectangles, 1915.

 

Historical context: 

Suprematism has always been closely associated with the Russian Revolution which took place concurrently to it. Part of the reason for Suprematism’s existence may have been because of Russia’s revolution, where great change was afoot, and all of the existing societal structures were coming under question. The movement's spirituality began to increasingly define it, and despite the fact that this placed it in jeopardy in 1917 following the Revolution, the period following the revolution was defined by tolerance. 

Following Stalin’s ascendance in1924 and the beginnings of the artistic style ‘socialist realism’ - which was totally at odds with Suprematism – Malevich’s career took a turn for the worse. He even painted some works in a realist style at the end of his career, because of the fact that since1934 the doctrine of socialist realism had become official policy, meaning anything that wasn’t done in a realist style was not allowed. 

 

(An example of a well-known Socialist Realist work) Isaak Brodsky, Lenin in Smolny, 1930.

 

Other suprematist artists: 

Although Malevich’s name is the only one overwhelmingly associated with Suprematism, there a number of other artists who were part of the movement and who subscribed to Malevich’s new ideas about art. In 1915, the Suprematists were officially expanded and formed when Malevich was joined by other Russian artists Mikhail Menkov, Ivan Klyun, Kseniya Boguslavskaya, Ivan Puni and Olga Rozanova. The previously discussed exhibition The Last Futurist Exhibition of Painting 0.10 which opened in 1915 was where their work was unveiled together. 

Aside from those directly part of the inaugural exhibition, one other well-known artist contributed to the Suprematist movement. It was the Russian artist El Lissitzky, who in 1919 met Malevich and was strongly influenced by Suprematism, going on to make work in a very similar style.

Lissitzky was also significant in the sense that he took the ideas outside of Russia and into the wider world. Lissitzky absorbed himself into Suprematism the year he met Malevich until around 1923. He believed that Suprematism represented the visual equivalent of the social and political revolution taking place concurrently in Russia at the time. The visionary nature of Suprematism was to Lissitzky the cultural and artistic equivalent of a wholly novel formation of society. 

 

El Lissitzky, Proun 4 B, 1919-20.

 

The end and legacy of Suprematism:

Aside from Malevich’s personal fate, the movement lived on in a variety of indirect ways. Malevich himself had ceased making any paintings at all between 1919 and 1927 so he could commit himself fully to writing. With this step back from Malevich and coupled with the strict policies in the Soviet Union, Suprematism’s short but powerful peak had come to an abrupt end. 

However, within the broader boundaries of abstraction, the pioneering nature of Suprematism was felt widely. As previously mentioned, El Lissitzky widely employed the formal vocabulary of the Suprematist movement, which was crucial for the formation of the Constructivist movement. 

In a specific example, the notion of artistic transcendence that Malevich often wrote about came through strongly in the spiritually conscious and mathematical abstract works of Piet Mondrian. Moreover, by 1936, the year in which the trailblazing Cubism and Abstract Art exhibition took place in New York at MoMA, it contained a number of works by Malevich from his Suprematist years. These then had a profound effect on subsequent forms of American modernism. It has also been noted that in contemporary architecture, and most notably in the work of Zaha Hadid, formal references can be detected which hark back to Malevich’s paintings. 

 

Cover image: Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Painting, Eight Red Rectangles, 1915.

Written by Max Lunn

Stay Tuned on Kooness magazine for more exciting news from the art world.

 

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